Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Long Way To The Promised Land

It's said that the Israelites wandered the desert for 40 years before they finally reached the Promised Land. While it wasn't 40 years for us, getting to Israel certainly took about 40 more hours than it was supposed to.

Diana and I stepped off the bus in the Egyptian town of Taba, near the Egypt/Israel border. After combing the Cradle of Kings, we were eager to poke around the Promised Land, our enthusiasm only slightly doused by the dead seas of sweat forming under our backpacks as we walked from the bus station to the border, bodies bleeding buckets under the hot June sun. We were processed quickly on the Egyptian side before heading across the spit of land separating the two countries. The turquoise waters of the Gulf of Aquaba lapped to our right and I looked longingly at them before being slapped by blessed air conditioning when we walked into the Israeli passport control building.

There, my two years spent as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine paid off because the language the border guards were most comfortable speaking wasn't Hebrew or English. It was Russian. Although I knew Ukraine and Russia had once collectively been home to the largest Jewish population in the world and that many of them had taken advantage of Israel's Right of Return policy, it was a surprise to find that the majority of the control officers were Slavic.

Diana should have been right at home here, as she was not only Ukrainian, but a Ukrainian of Jewish decent. She handed her passport to the control officer and patiently waited. The control officer flipped through the passport. When she reached the end, she returned to the beginning and began to flip through it again.

"Where is your visa?" the girl asked Diana in Russian.

"I want to get one here at the border."

"You can't," the girl said, her tone implying that she really wanted to add: "you idiot."

"No, I asked before I left," said Diana. "I can get a visa at the border."

The girl looked annoyed, then picked up her phone and began talking to her supervisor.

I turned to Diana: "You're sure you can get it here?"

"That's what they said," she replied.

"The Israeli embassy said that?"

"No, I called them a dozen times and the line was always busy. I asked a travel agent."

The girl hung up the phone and said that Diana could not get a visa at the border, and that the best way to get a visa would be to go to the Israeli embassy in Cairo. Mental images emerged of the overnight bus ride we'd just taken from there, the Arabic action movies being played full volume throughout the night, shivering in a tee-shirt because the jet-powered AC had turned the bus into a meat locker, being awoken almost every hour by Egyptian police doing passport checks. I quickly became habituated to sleeping with my hand gripping my passport, thrusting it forward with eyes half-open whenever the bus stopped.

No, we did not want to go back to Cairo.

We spoke to the supervisor, also a Russian immigrant, but she said there was nothing she could do. I looked out of her office window at the Gulf. We could dive into the water and swim to Israel in under ten minutes, bypassing the border altogether. I glanced at the guards--native Ukrainians--who were wearing body armor and fingering assault rifles. How good was their aim? Maybe if we rented scuba gear...

Diana was talking, and my attention returned to her. Jordan. Something about Jordan. Oh. Since we were going to visit Jordan after Israel, why not go there first? Not a horrible idea: its capital of Amman and wasn't on the itinerary, but there was an Israeli embassy there and we could possibly get the visa. We also knew that there were ferries crossing to Jordan from the Egyptian town of Nuweiba, just a few hours south. We'd lose some time, but we'd be in Jordan by the end of the day, right?


We stepped back into the heat and walked towards Egyptian passport control. There, I tried to explain that we'd never really left Egypt, but the Egyptians disagreed, and we each grittingly paid the $20 visa fee and a $12 Taba entry tax. Piling annoyance on annoyance, we emerged out of the Egyptian border area to be descended upon by cab drivers, in our faces and yelling "very good price!" It was now almost noon, and the sun--vindictive about being jilted for the air conditioning--raged down. Diana suggested we splurge on a cab for the mile back to the bus station as she was too tired and aggravated to walk. I agreed, and post-haggling we trundled down the blazing blacktop with our driver asking where we were headed.

Nuweiba, we told him.

"No buses to Nuweiba today!" he said. "I will take you! Good rate!"

We'd been lied to literally since the moment we stepped off the plane in Egypt, so we were already inured to his words. In all honesty, we'd developed a bit of a bitter attitude towards Egyptians because of it. We reasoned that this was just the part of Egypt that dealt with tourists, that surely a normal Egyptian wouldn't be so happy to lie to strangers.  So far, though, that thought was just a mirage in the midst of a whole lot of sand.

"No, just take us to the bus station," I said.

He seemed upset that I didn't believe him. "No, no! There is no bus. We go to Nuweiba!"

"Just the bus station," I repeated.

When we reached at the bus station, our cab driver hurriedly jumped out and ran to the counter, commanding excitedly in Arabic. As I walked up to it, it was obvious from his face and gesticulations that he was telling the bus station attendant to lie to us. Which is exactly what the bus station attendant did, uncomfortably and without looking me in the eye.

I sighed. At least I knew how to play.

"Really?" I asked. "No buses?"


"What time are the buses tomorrow?"


"If we stay in Taba tonight and come back tomorrow, when do the buses leave?"

He hesitated. "One o' clock and six o' clock."

It was currently 12:30.  "And where is the one o' clock bus today?"

He hesitated again. "It already left."

"So we will get tickets for today's six o' clock bus."

"No, it will be very late. Very, very late."

"We have time. Lots of time."

The disgruntled cab driver stormed off as the bus station attendant sold me two tickets for the one o' clock bus.


Normally I'm a patient and understanding boyfriend, but when we discovered that the ferry would not leave until the next day and that we'd have to stay a night in Nuweiba, my annoyance became directed at Diana.  I felt justified because I had asked her several times to call the Israeli embassy and be absolutely sure about the visa. Diana is a redhead, so the fight on the bus went like this:

"I'm angry you didn't do a better job researching this."

"I'm angry that you're angry."

End of argument.

Luckily, you don't actually have to talk much to your partner to find a hotel.

Nuweiba turned out to be a quiet town on a beautiful stretch of Red Sea coast and was the perfect place to be absolutely nowhere. We checked out several of the run-down hotels dotting the beach, haggling as we went, before settling into the Mermaid Hotel for $10 a night. To get some space, Diana went down to the beach to watch the sunset.

A little later, I heard the sounds of drumming.  Outside, I saw Diana dancing in front of the hotel's non-working fountain. An Egyptian girl of about twelve was dancing with her and surrounding them were a circle of people, one of whom was a boy beating out a rhythm on a hand drum. It turned out that we were the only guests at the hotel, and that we now had the attention of the family that ran it: two women who were both married to the same man in Cairo, their two daughters and their three sons. Fighting through the language barrier with smiles and hand signals, we finally got to know the real Egypt. We danced. We created a "net" with a line of shoes and played volleyball with a half-inflated soccer ball. We listened as they sang songs, and Diana taught them how to play a Ukrainian card game. The mirage became a little more real, and the backtrack from Israel finally became worth it.  Until the next day.


We were told that a ferry was leaving at 8 AM, and so awoke with the sun to discover that Nuweiba was decidedly lacking in taxis. After talking to some men who were sitting on the steps of a nearby store, one offered--for a price--to drive us there. Around the corner, we found his car in a state normally reserved for junkyards. Much of the dashboard paneling was gone, leaving only exposed wires. There were no windows. We waited while he poured water into the radiator, and then, because the battery wasn't working, he asked me to help get it rolling so that he could push start the car.

The day worsened as we arrived at the port ticket office. The price for crossing to Jordan was $80 each, a week's worth of hotel rooms for a one hour boat ride. Any entrepreneur could buy a couple speed boats and take people back and forth across the narrow Gulf of Aqaba for a fistful of dollars each, but Egypt and Jordan had instead agreed to have one massive ship make the journey each day, charging as much for it as they wanted for it. As it was now 7:30 AM, we sucked it up, quickly paid and then hurried through the ticket control into the massive warehouse that served as the waiting area for the ship. The air was stale, the lighting dim and the windows caked with dirt. Rows and rows of wooden benches held hundreds of soon-to-be passengers, with hundreds more milling about or sitting along the walls.

In our hurry, we had decided to not grab food, deciding that we would just eat in Jordan. We also hadn't found an ATM and we'd spent the last of our money to buy the tickets. Didn't matter, we said, we'll be in Jordan in a couple hours.

Wrong again.

Eight AM passed, and I began to ask anyone in a uniform when we'd leave. Twenty minutes, one said. An hour, said another.

Three hours later we were still sitting, watching life around us.  A girl in a red and white dress and curls was being scolded by a woman in a black chador. Large Egyptian men fanned themselves as they leaned against bulging suitcases, presumably with contents meant to be sold on the other side of the Gulf. This was Egyptian life rarely seen by tourists, and we were the only non-Arabs in the room.

Well, save one.

Tatyana found us and then clung to us, a Russian woman in her early 30s who recognized Diana as one of her own. It turned out that she had been vacationing for several months in Huggurah on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, a vacation she'd been making every summer for the past 6 years. Now she was leaving the country to renew her visa and, like us, had no idea how problematic catching a ferry could be.

Tatiana was in Egypt to find a man, she said. Sick of Slavic men, she was looking for an Arabic one.

"The men here are simple, uncomplicated," Tatyana said. "They know what a woman likes and how to make a woman feel like a queen."

The wait suddenly felt longer.


Another hour passed.

Then another.

The officials still kept saying the same thing: maybe twenty more minutes, maybe another hour.  We didn't want to leave the waiting area because we didn't want to miss the boat, but now we were exceedingly hungry.  

An angel came in the form of Jacqueline, a paunchy, middle-aged Egyptian woman with a French name and rudimentary English who was sitting on the bench behind ours. She seemed amazingly modern in a pants suit that showed her arms from the elbows down, and, even more surprising, her head was uncovered.

She was jovial in nature and was making us repeatedly laugh with her angry condemnations of the ferry. We learned that the ferry never arrived at a fixed time.  Instead, it arrived only after it completely filled up in Jordan and crossed the gulf, any mechanical problems nonwithstanding. Sometimes it managed to make the trip twice a day, she said, sometimes only once. It showed up when it showed up and you just had to make sure you were at the port when it did. While Jacqueline was talking to us, she pulled out packages of flat bread and cans of tinned meat and forced us to eat. She wouldn't take no for an answer, and we didn't say it for long, hungrily consuming everything she pushed at us.

The mirage, we discovered, was finally real.

Ten hours (yes, ten hours!) of waiting later, the ferry arrived.

Although inside the building was hot, at least it was also dark. Out the back gates, we were temporarily blinded by intense brightness before being herded onto buses. The ferry was only a ten minute walk from the building, but they still required us to bus over. We were packed in elbow-to-stomach and then left to sweat in our metal saunas for fifteen more minutes before the engine started and we were on our way.

The entrance to the ferry created another crush of people. The size of a cruise ship, much of the ferry was actually a massive hold being loaded with goods, and I finally understood that this wasn't a passenger ferry that was ridiculously late, it was a cargo ferry that let you on if you waited long enough. They were glacial in letting people on, carefully checking each ticket and passport without bothering with orderly lines. After another twenty minutes of suffocating in a sea of humanity, I pulled out my American passport. Sometimes showing it helps, sometimes it doesn't.

This time it did, and we were led to the front of the line and soon were sitting in torn and stained canvas seats on one of the trash-littered upper decks of the ship. On board, there was no access to the outside, but we could see the Gulf through the windows. We wanted to smell the sea but instead smelled mildew.

An hour and a half later, the ship started to move.


Luck, it seemed, ebbed and flowed like the tide. After a soul-wearing day of hungrily waiting in the heat, the moon tugged luck back our way.

I was sitting as I preferred to be sitting:
between two beautiful women. Diana's red-headed sultriness was on my left, blonde and classically good looking Tatyana was on my right. A white-uniformed officer walked over and said to me: "the captain would like to know if you would like to be seated in first class."

I briefly wondered if it was my passport creating this request, but then I correctly realized it was the ladies whom I was with. Either way, the answer was obviously yes. The officer escorted us up a set of stairs into another world. The air was fresh up there, the carpeted floors clean and the deck largely empty. We were guided to plush leather swivel chairs surrounding a table bolted to the wall. I quickly excused myself to the bathroom. The one on our deck literally had excrement on the walls and an inch of brownish liquid on the floor. My first thought in that bathroom had not been disgust, but curiosity: just how, exactly, does poop end up on walls? Unable to conceive of an answer, nor a way to get to the toilet that didn't involve stepping into that liquid in non-waterproof sneakers, I had decided not to use it.

The bathroom in first class? Immaculate.

After sitting by ourselves for about twenty minutes and debating what, exactly, had gotten us our invitation, the captain and one of his engineers came by. The captain was a good looking man in his forties, clean shaven and with a noticeable paunch. He introduced himself and then quite quickly asked about the marital arrangements among us. When he found out that Tatyana was single, he smiled and invited us out onto the upper deck of the ship.

Outside, "worth it" became redefined again. We were speeding up the Gulf of Aquaba, salty air whipping at our clothes. The sun was slowly setting as we stood and talked at the stern of the ship, Diana settling back into my arms while the captain escorted Valentina off to woo her. We took pictures, we closed our eyes and breathed in, we marveled that from that spot we could see four different countries: Egypt to our left, Saudi Arabia to our right and Israel and Jordan up ahead. Visually, though, the countries were just one single curving landmass with nothing to distinguish them save history and politics.

The engineer--a Jordanian--brought us cold sodas and explained how it'd been time consuming to unload cargo in Jordan that day, leading to our wait, before telling us about the many ships he'd worked on all over the world. We sipped and talked and enjoyed the sea air as night came on and the ship eased into its dock at Aqaba


Several days later we found ourselves in Amman, Jordan's capital.


The tide of luck was back out.

The journey north had been enjoyable, stopping off at the carved city of Petra and standing in awe of it despite the heat. Amman had turned out to be a wonderful city filled with beautiful ruins and friendly people. But we were not enjoying where we were now: in front of the Israeli embassy and packed yet again into a crowd. We had showed up half an hour before it opened, hoping to quickly get a visa and be in Israel before nightfall. We sat with about a dozen others in front of the guardhouse, waiting for them to raise the gate and let us in. Half an hour later, though, we were still sitting. The four Jordanian guards standing near the gate refused to answer questions about when the embassy would open. Around us, more and more people arrived, but without being allowed in we began to pack up around the gate. Two hours later, more than fifty of us stood, shoulder-to-spine, sweating in the quickly warming day. Diana had gone to sit in the wan shade of a tree while I held our "place", the term being amazingly fluid in a mob.

I struck up a conversation with a Jordanian man beside me in his late 20s. He was well dressed and annoyed and kept yelling into his cell phone. It turned out he had studied in the United States and spoke excellent English. He kept calling different phone numbers, trying to get someone to let him in. Apparently he had connections.

"Someone important is at the embassy today," he explained. "So the whole place is closed for security."

"For how long?" I asked.

"Until he leaves," he said.

"When will that be?"

"No one knows."

We stood and sweated and talked about his time in America. He was particularly appreciative of the women there. As women were also my favorite topic, we had a long conversation before I remarked: "it must be frustrating then, to come back to Jordan where you have to get married first."

He gave me an odd look. "What are you talking about? Hijab girls are sluts."


"Oh, they wear the scarf because it is tradition, but trust me, they'll fuck."

Wow. His English was really, really good.

A few minutes later, his connection came through, and a guard at the gate called out his name. I followed him to the front, but was not allowed in. I tried to explain that I was an American and not a security threat. They didn't care. Annoyed, I took out my passport, folded my arms and held it--eagle side forward--against my chest. Then I stared at them. I blinked sweat out of my eyes and scowled, thinking: "my tax dollars keep weapons and aid flowing to the country of this embassy and if we weren't around, Israel would only be a smudge on a map and you'd be out of a job."

Okay, it wasn't the most mature line of reasoning.  I kept up the scowling, though, hoping that--even though they had the weapons--I was making them uncomfortable.

I stood like that, staring at various guards, them looking away whenever our eyes met, for another hour.

Finally, a man with a clipboard walked out of the embassy and handed it to one of the guards. The guard started reading names out loud. Behind me, there was commotion and struggle as people on the list pushed forward. I kept staring. After all the names were called, the guard looked over at me, looked away, and then looked  at me again again.

"You too," he said, waving towards the embassy.

"Diana!" I yelled.


It was a Ukrainian with an M-16 who looked through our bags at the Israeli border.

Deja vu.

We stood in line.

Deja vu again.

Diana handed her passport to the woman. The woman flipped through it. She turned to the front of the passport and then began flipping through it again.

This time she found the visa, Diana's picture smiling out from it.

She asked Diana a question. Diana answered.

Question. Answer.

Question. Answer.

The woman picked up her stamp and chu-chunk, we were in.

It took 40 extra hours to get to that point.

But no matter. We'd finally reached the Promised Land.

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